UN: No plans for highest pandemic level yet

Mexico criticizes 'repressive' quarantines abroad; sends jet to China to bring home 70 citizens quarantined by Beijing government.

Mexico swine flu masks 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Mexico swine flu masks 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
The heads of the United Nations and the World Health Organization say there are no imminent plans to raise its pandemic alert to its highest level. In New York on Monday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said WHO "has no plan to raise the alert level to 6 at this moment." WHO chief Margaret Chan also told the UN General Assembly by video-link from Geneva that "we are not there yet." Level 6 - the highest - would mean that a global outbreak of swine flu is under way. WHO raised the level to 5 last week. Chan said there were now more than confirmed cases of swine flu in 20 countries, and there is "no indication" the situation is similar to the flu outbreak in 1918. Ban and Chan say there was no justification now for banning imports based on swine flu. Meanwhile exico rebuked China declaring the swine flu epidemic was no reason for "repressive and discriminatory measures," after the Asian nation seized and quarantined at least 70 of its citizens. The Mexican government chartered a plane Monday to bring its citizens back as officials claimed the epidemic was waning. Medical experts worldwide, however, said it was to early to tell. While Mexico began its first tentative steps toward normalcy, weighing whether to reopen businesses and schools, the virus spread to Colombia in the first confirmed case in South America, where flu season is about to begin. More cases were confirmed in North America and Europe - including Portugal's first - with the total number sickened worldwide rising to over 1,000 eople, according to health and government officials. But with the scope of the disease unknown, several countries have taken urgent measures against arriving Mexicans or those who have recently traveled to Mexico. In China, more than 70 Mexican travelers were quarantined in hospitals and hotels, and Mexicans on arriving flights were taken into isolation, said Mexico's ambassador, Jorge Guajardo. Even the Mexican consul in Guangzhou was briefly held after returning from a vacation in Cambodia. And in Hong Kong, 350 people were isolated in a hotel after a Mexican traveler there was determined to have swine flu. Mexican President Felipe Calderon complained of the backlash against Mexicans abroad. "I think it's unfair that because we have been honest and transparent with the world some countries and places are taking repressive and discriminatory measures because of ignorance and disinformation," Calderon said. "There are always people who are seizing on this pretext to assault Mexicans, even just verbally." The president did not single out any country. But the Foreign Relations Department said afterward that Mexico was sending a chartered jet Monday to bring back any citizens who wanted to leave China. China's Foreign Ministry denied it was discriminating against Mexicans. But the Mexican Embassy in Beijing sent a circular out to all its citizens saying China had imposed "measures of unjustified isolation" in response to swine flu and urging trips there to be canceled or postponed. "The imposition of measures which restrict freedom of movement such as quarantine and other forms of forced isolation by health authorities in other countries are not compatible" with norms on human rights, according to a document seen by The Associated Press. The Mexican president said a nationwide shutdown and an aggressive information campaign appeared to have helped curtail the outbreak there. "We have succeeded in detaining or at least slowing the spread of the virus precisely because the measures have been the correct ones," Calderon said in an interview with state television broadcast Sunday night. Mexico's health chief said officials will decide Monday whether to reopen businesses and schools or extend the shutdown that has helped choke off the spread of swine flu but caused untold harm to the country's economy. The reopening "will not happen just like that," Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordova said at a news conference. "There will have to be training, preparations for teachers and parents." Possible recommendations would be that there be a 2-meter (6.5-foot) distance kept between people in restaurants or theaters and that workers wear masks on the subway. The World Health Organization said Mexico had 590 cases of swine flu and 25 deaths from the virus. Cordova said the last confirmed death was April 29 and the illness apparently peaked in Mexico between April 23 and April 28. Health officials raised the number of confirmed U.S. swine flu cases to 245 in 35 states late Sunday. The new number reflects streamlining in federal procedures and the results of tests by states, which have only recently begun confirming cases, said Dr. Anne Schuchat of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC's acting chief, Dr. Richard Besser, said swine flu is spreading just as easily as regular winter flu. "The good news is when we look at this virus right now, we're not seeing some of the things in the virus that have been associated in the past with more severe flu," Besser said. "That's encouraging, but it doesn't mean we're out of the woods yet." In Alberta, Canada, officials quarantined about 220 pigs infected by a worker who recently returned from Mexico. It was the first documented case of the H1N1 virus being passed from a human to another species. Canada stressed that pigs often get the flu and there is no danger in eating pork. Cordova presented the most comprehensive description yet of the dead in Mexico. He said 15 were female and seven were men. One possible explanation could be that women get poorer health care in Mexico because of its male-dominated culture, he said. Cordova also said only 4 percent were unemployed; the rest either had jobs or were housewives and students. More than 50 percent had not graduated from high school and only 11 percent had university education. Pablo Kuri, an epidemiologist advising Cordova, told The Associated Press that tests have confirmed a swine flu death in Mexico City on April 11, two days earlier than what had been believed to be the first death. Kuri also said there were no deaths among health care workers treating swine flu patients in Mexico, an indication that the virus may not be as contagious or virulent as initially feared.